A bit of syncopation and history: Ragtime


Ragtime the musical is currently playing at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. It's an epic musical based on E.L. Doctorow's novel that charts the tale of three families against the backdrop of the change, family, immigration, racism, strikes and unrest at the turn of the last century in America. It's an exhausting and exhilarating history lesson set to the music of ragtime, a genre of music that is predominantly recognisable for its syncopated rhythms. It was popular during the period, but then eclipsed by jazz and largely forgotten until a 1970s revival.

Of course it is neither the period nor the music that hits you first when you take your seats. The first shock is that the set which looks like a bomb has gone off. And for a story set in 1906 it all seems very contemporary. There is a poster from Obama's 2008 campaign proclaiming "Dare to Dream" towards the back with a gaping hole in it. In front of the hole is a pile of junk, dust and rubbish as if had exploded out from the sign. It does not look pretty, but it is incredibly evocative of not only more recent events such as 9/11 but also of the themes that prevail throughout the piece around change and the creative destruction of American capitalism that builds, renews, destroys and builds again.

Atmosphere aside, for an audience member who is not intimately familiar with American history (or the 16th century German historical figure Han Kohlhase - who is the inspiration for Coalhouse Walker), it's a clever way to draw you in. And as the light fades over Regents Park and the bird calls get louder (and the odd helicopter flies overhead) it works very well. Welcome modifications to the stage area brings the action into the audience and in your face. I had a buttocks eye view of actor Joshua Lacey as he dropped his trousers to commit an act of vandalism in the first half. There are other grander spectacles involving a flat top crane including Katie Brayben as Evelyn Nesbit on a giant swing and Stephane Anelli as Harry Houdini escaping from a straight jacket suspended upside down.

The story is somewhat melodramatic and there is enough material for a 12 part television series rather than a three hour musical. As an audience member you feel the weight of history on your shoulders and you feel like it is slapping you about a bit with it too. But the melodrama and the music keeps the story together, particularly as the three stories come together in the second act.

In a piece this big, voices to match the epic scale are required. But thankfully it isn't all big showstopper numbers and there is a number of delicate performances that add some welcome shades of grey to the proceedings. Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker (pictured above) performs with a mix of charisma, charm and a bit of terror. His final number, "Make Them Hear You," is not shouted out from the rooftops treetops but delivered quietly making it more of a spiritual event.

It won't be to everyone's tastes as the audioboo with @Johnnyfoxlondon below suggests, but it is one fascinating and contemplative night out at the theatre. And you would be hard pressed to find a more passionate and rousing performance show in London at the moment. Dress warmly and go. It runs until 8 September alternating with A Midsummer Night's Dream and tickets are available the usual outlets.

listen to ‘Late night boo: Ragtime’ on Audioboo

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